Archive for 2020

Synchronic

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 20, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Synchronic is one of those films that is conveniently described as “interesting” and it’s unclear whether you mean it as a compliment. The ambiguous word is perfection because it fits this movie to a T. Steve and Dennis (Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan) are paramedics in New Orleans who also happen to be best friends. They encounter a rash of unusual deaths in their line of work. A new designer drug called Synchronic is the common thread that unites all of the cases. It would appear this drug — which is sold in single-dose packets — might have otherworldly powers. When his partner’s daughter Brianna goes missing, Steve investigates.

The narrative is a slow starter. The first half establishes the close relationship between the central duo. It’s nice to see their bond is a positive depiction of male friendship. However, both men are adrift in their everyday lives, occasionally turning to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain. Anthony Mackie’s character is a ladies’ man that has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Jamie Dornan portrays a man who had difficulty meeting women in the past (!) but is now married with two kids. He’s currently having marital problems. When the pair confront a series of bizarre fatalities in their job, it unfolds like a crime drama, disseminated in fragments using a piecemeal approach.

The second half improves. Steve becomes the hero as it concerns his investigation into the whereabouts of Brianna. His EMT partner Dennis is mostly sidelined. Dennis’ vague personality lacks a compelling identity anyway. Steve’s experimentation with Synchronic is intriguing. Here the chronicle starts to connect the threads of the grisly murders we witnessed before. These developments provide some much-needed clarification in a picture heretofore wallowing in existential gloom. The script plays with the idea that sometimes nostalgia isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “The past f—–g sucks, man!” Steve cries out at one point.

This is the fourth feature from filmmaking duo Justin Benson and Scott Moorhead who specialize in quirky features (Spring, The Endless) that blend sci-fi with horror. Synchronic debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019 but didn’t get released to the public until after Project Power and Tenet. It feels like an amalgamation of those movies but through a low-budget indie B-movie aesthetic. Synchronic is a real downer of a film. Not a criticism. Just a fact. Nevertheless, its aimless meandering feels somewhat pointless until that mic drop of an ending involving a troubling sacrifice. The “good old days” are a misnomer. “Be thankful you live in the present” is the veiled admonition presented in its final scene. Fair enough. However I suspect a hundred years from today, someone will make a similar movie condemning our current era.

04-19-21

Another Round

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on March 28, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Academy Awards often bring welcome attention to overseas cinema that many U.S. viewers haven’t seen. The Oscars still have a certain cachet. Though people deride their selections and snubs, critics continue to discuss them passionately on social media. When the announcement occurred on Monday, March 15th, Another Round surprisingly emerged with TWO nominations. This release had been the frontrunner for International Feature, so that honor was anticipated. However, Thomas Vinterberg was also cited as Best Director — one of the biggest surprises of this year’s reveal. Most pundits predicted that Aaron Sorkin’s name would be mentioned for The Trial of the Chicago 7, especially after it placed in 6 other categories including Best Picture. Vinterberg’s citation is a solid reflection on the merits of this film.

Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Peter (Lars Ranthe), and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) are four teachers at a High School in Copenhagen. They make a most unusual pact — to drink consistently throughout the day. Their decision is rooted in the theories of real-life Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud. He opined that humans are born with a blood alcohol level that is 0.05 percent too low. Therefore they should compensate for that deficit. It sounds highly questionable, but given that their lives are in various degrees of unhappiness, they’re ready to try anything to improve. All four are dealing with unmotivated students and feel that their lives have become stale. Learning to imbibe more, seems like tasty medicine. They decide to put Skårderud’s theory to the test.

Fortunately and rather amusingly, their agreement has an immediate boost. Mild intoxication as a means to get yourself out of a rut would appear to be a recipe for disaster. Please keep an open mind. Anyone who has ever felt more socially at ease after a drink or two will appreciate how it could help. Director Vinterberg’s screenplay which he cowrote with Tobias Lindholm, takes a pragmatic approach to the advantages of inebriation. This is conferred under the guises of a research project. It’s an admittedly superficial justification. Regardless, the benefits are immediately transparent. Martin’s marriage to his wife Anika (Maria Bonnevie) improves. He subsequently bonds with his family by taking them on a weekend getaway.

The other teachers experience positive outcomes as well. Tommy coaches his soccer team to victory. The least likely player — nicknamed “Specs” because of his glasses — scores the game-winning goal. Peter inspires his choir to sing better than they ever have. Nikolaj helps an undergraduate who is failing. Martin’s pupils respond positively to his more engaged methods. “The world is never as you expect,” Martin teaches. He cheekily discusses the drinking habits of Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Adolph Hitler. Can you guess who eschewed liquor altogether? Perhaps alcohol isn’t such a bad thing he surmises. The students are amused and so are we.

Actor Mads Mikkelsen ties the whole production together with a sympathetic performance. He embodies a man making improvements at a crossroads. Ah but then things start to collapse. If a little booze is good, more must be even better. No clearheaded person would ever think such a thing. Nevertheless, the men decide to push the boundaries of the study. The narrative starts to settle into the more expected cautionary tale about the pitfalls of drinking — with less surprising results. Director Thomas Vinterberg — poignantly uncovers a mid-life crisis with both humor and introspection. This is Vinterberg’s first Oscar nomination. Yes, he directed The Hunt — also starring Mikkelsen — which was nominated for International Feature in 2014. However the Academy Award for that category is rather unfairly bestowed upon the country represented, not the filmmaker responsible. The Great Beauty (Italy) won that year but there’s still a chance a movie helmed by Vinterberg will win “the prize formerly known as Best Foreign Language Film.” If that happens on April 25, I will toast his success.

03-15-21

Nomadland

Posted in Adventure, Drama with tags on February 23, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century was published by journalist Jessica Bruder in 2017. She wrote a non-fiction book detailing the phenomenon of nomads which significantly increased after 2009 in the wake of the Great Recession. Older, adventuresome types adopted a transient existence, taking to the road in RVs, vans, and campers. These so-called “workampers” combine work and camping, traveling around the United States in search of full or part-time employment. Vagabonds form a growing community that number in the tens of thousands.

Life is about the journey. The chronicle is ostensibly about a woman named Fern. Her trek begins when the U.S. Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada shuts down in 2011. It had been there for 88 years. The mine’s closure led to the town’s economic collapse and the cancellation of its zip code. Her husband has recently died. Fern decides to sell most of her belongings. She uses the money to purchase a van and travel the country searching for jobs. This character is brilliantly realized by Frances McDormand. The actress melts into her surroundings. She impresses the viewer not as a thespian playing a role but as the authentic embodiment of a soul. McDormand has won 2 Oscars, one for Fargo in 1997 and another for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in 2018. It’s not so far-fetched that she just might win her third. Her personification is yet another testament to her talent.

Nomadland cleverly blurs the line between documentary and fiction. The ability to present a person’s experiences, honestly, without artifice is indeed a gift . This is director Chloé Zhao’s third feature, having previously directed Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017). McDormand works in the Hollywood realm. So does actor David Strathairn who pops up in a supporting part here as a potential love interest. However, a fundamental component is the casting of non-actors who were also portrayed in the text. The story is elevated by the actual individuals depicting somewhat fictional versions of themselves. Linda May, Charlene Swankie, and Bob Wells are three examples. This is a heartfelt achievement that empathizes with these wanderers. Their humanity is a big reason why this film is so effective.

Nomadland highlights the landscape as much as it honors people. Fern’s expedition across the American West not only offers a glimpse of gorgeous vistas and stunning sunsets but also unforgiving cold climates and harsh conditions. Joshua James Richards’ cinematography is a key element of director Chloé Zhao’s portrait. I’m ready for a coffee table book that highlights images from the production. The narrative is not plot-driven, so it may take some time to embrace its gentle rhythms. Some vignettes are more compelling than others. This is a leisurely-paced account that gently drifts along. Like the movie, the central protagonist ambles through life. Initially, it presents a depressing tale of an economy in decline — vagabonds who have sacrificed the comfort of an established residence in order to survive. Nomadland ultimately celebrates strength and adaptability — the resilience and creativity of the indomitable human spirit. These Americans may have given up a permanent home but they have not given up hope.

11-25-20

Pieces of a Woman

Posted in Drama with tags on January 21, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

If nothing else, Pieces of a Woman will be remembered for a home birth sequence that unfolds in a single take less than 10 minutes in. Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) are having a baby. Their midwife Barbara is currently involved with another birth so she sends another, Eva (Molly Parker), in her place. The next 20 minutes is an agony that culminates in tragedy. What follows is a chronicle about how a mother and her family deal with that grief.

There is an undeniable craft to the construction of this account that is praiseworthy and compelling. The talented Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó (White God) has fashioned a saga with artistic flair. It is rooted in Vanessa Kirby’s portrait of a woman undone. Her performance is the best reason to see this. She is utterly disaffected by life after this trauma. Shia LaBeouf is her husband Sean. One’s familiarity with the actor’s personal issues may prove to be a distraction to his credible work here. Then again, it may even help because his character is not likable. The always dependable Ellen Burstyn plays her controlling mother Elizabeth. She elevates the narrative with her presence as well.

Pieces of a Woman is yet another dramatic exercise where a film is an excuse for actors to converge and exhibit their thespian skills. The audience is subsequently invited to marvel at all the acting on display. Like all of these recent efforts, there are indeed impressive performances. Furthermore, this looks like a fully formed piece of cinema. It feels like real life as opposed to a theatrical showcase, but to what end? This is an unpleasant experience that depicts the degradation of a marriage. Martha is understandably wounded. She is cold to everyone, especially her husband. The couple fight. Sean cheats on her [with their attorney (Sarah Snook) no less!] Yes, movies can present the ugliness of life. However, the viewer should feel enriched for suffering along with the protagonist when the credits roll. Pieces of a Woman is a punishment to watch. I suppose if there’s anything to be gleaned from this nasty ordeal, it’s that the death of a child is hard. These actors truly make you endure that awful event and its aftermath. Uh thanks, I guess?

01-13-21

One Night in Miami

Posted in Drama with tags on January 18, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

So let me set the stage. Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree) has just pulled off one of the greatest upsets in sporting history by beating Sonny Liston (Aaron D. Alexander). Civil rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr. ), and NFL player Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) were all ringside to witness it. Afterward, these four American icons decided to hang out. The date is February 25, 1964, and their meeting really happened. This movie, however, is a fictionalized version of what they might have talked about. It is an compelling idea for a film. This was a pivotal moment of contemplation in the career of each of these 4 young men. The magnitude of their encounter is underscored by the fact that Malcolm X and Sam Cooke would both be murdered within a year.

One Night in Miami is the directorial debut from Academy Award winning actress Regina King (Jerry Maguire, If Beale Street Could Talk) based on the play written by Kemp Powers. The plot merely revolves around a conversation. The play leans heavily on the repartee between its four principal players. You’d expect them to agree but their differing ideologies are a big part of the conflict. Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali seize focus as the principals. They control and guide the deliberation. They are more aligned in political spirit whereas Jim Brown and Sam Cooke’s views are a little divergent. Yet they all share a mutual respect for one another. The Civil Rights movement was ongoing concern. As they speak we come to know what’s going on in their lives and how they wish to proceed in their separate careers.

One Night in Miami concerns four inspirational icons that spar over weighty matters. The screenplay is shrewd enough to present each of these individual men not as legends but as human beings with vulnerabilities. Of all the depictions, Leslie Odom, Jr stands out as Sam Cooke. He disappears into the role so you feel you are watching the soul crooner himself, not an actorly achievement. Odom’s extensive theater experience (Rent, Leap of Faith, Hamilton) also means he can do his own singing and that is just as impressive as the performance. The best interactions involve him and Malcolm X. My favorite part is when Malcolm X reminisces about attending the singer’s concert and how Cooke won over the crowd when his microphone didn’t work. That little vignette was so captivating I started to wonder what a Sam Cooke memoir would look like. His life would undoubtedly make a fascinating movie. This is not a traditional cradle to the grave biography. This is merely a snapshot in the lives of these men. I do appreciate that approach. It is unique.

Where the picture falls short is in the authentic presentation of a leisurely exchange. The dialogue here doesn’t sound natural. It’s infused with the well-researched viewpoints of a writer. You never forget this is a play. What might these historical figures have talked about? Apparently the preferred subject is politics. It’s focused on a philosophical debate that deals with the plight of African Americans and what the moral obligation of black men in positions of power and cultural influence should be. There is a lot of self-reflection. No resolution per se. Just conversational gymnastics. Most of the so-called action takes place in Malcolm’s room at the Hampton House motel. This isn’t a production rooted in a strong narrative structure. To that extent, the tale doesn’t rise above its stage origins. That has been a difficult task as of late. The recent Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom also had that issue. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting and timely effort. This is sure to be a future favorite of high school history teachers on the American civil rights movement. As an intellectual exercise, the work is intriguing. As a piece of entertainment, it’s a bit less engaging.

12-29-20

News of the World

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Western with tags on January 16, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

United 93 and Captain Philips are two of the greatest films of the past 15 years. Paul Greengrass directed both. He also helmed 3 of the 5 entries in the Jason Bourne spy series. They include my favorites: Supremacy (2004) and Ultimatum (2007). So it goes without saying that my anticipation for Greengrass’ latest endeavor was high. News of the World is the achievement of a proficient filmmaker. The Western is a throwback to a bygone era when stately movies could expect to reap Oscar nominations in multiple categories, especially cinematography, costumes, production design, and sound. News of the World is unquestionably a beautifully constructed monument in the glorious tradition of Hollywood. Despite all this, I’m rather shocked that Paul Greengrass is responsible for it. This seems more like the fastidiously assembled effort from a talented hack than from the innovative auteur I have come to know.

The most important element in a movie is the story. Of course, all of the aforementioned components contribute. Don’t get me wrong. Those qualities are much appreciated. Particularly in our current age where this kind of grand filmmaking is on the wane. However, it’s the adventure that ultimately must captivate. News of the World is sadly lacking in this department. Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies (Lion, Beautiful Boy) adapted News of the World from the novel by Paulette Jiles. Civil War veteran Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) is an elderly widower traveling through northern Texas. He earns a living as a newsreader — which means he gives live readings from newspapers to paying audiences hungry for “news of the world”. He agrees to transport a young captive of the Kiowa tribe to her surviving biological relatives. And so this commences a 400-mile journey south through difficult terrain as the two lost spirits form a bond that predictably plays out like the fictional construct of a writer.

News of the World concerns Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd and his charge Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel). They encounter other people but this is essentially a two-hander. The 10-year-old girl has a grim past. Four years prior, a band of Kiowa raiders killed Johanna’s parents and sister. The Native Americans spared the youth and raised her as one of their own. Recently rescued by the U.S. Army, the child has once again been torn away from her home. She doesn’t speak English, is ill-tempered, and tries to escape. She appears to be mute which allows the young actress to perform without saying much. I might have thought it unique if I had never seen Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker.

Meanwhile, no actor represents righteousness better than Hanks. The celebrity quintessentially radiates integrity unlike anyone since James Stewart. In the last decade, Hanks has portrayed real-life hero Captain Sully and returned to the iconic role of Sheriff Woody in Toy Story 4. Need further proof? He’s played Mister Rogers and Walt Disney for goodness’ sake. He is a future candidate for sainthood before he even speaks. It’s a cinematic shorthand that works. I fully admit that. His inherently comforting demeanor alleviates the legend from having to display the nuance and craft that would be demanded of a less experienced actor. I don’t fault him for that. Nevertheless, the presentation feels so calculated and conventional.

News of the World is a piece of historical fiction that explores the definition of a family. That’s a nice idea but it unfolds at such a languid tempo. Nothing surprising occurs in this sanctimonious tale. The chronicle gradually limps to its inevitable conclusion with precious little enthusiasm. We keep expecting more conflict between these two disparate souls but Captain Kidd’s polite and mannerly personality doesn’t provide much friction. As the narrative plods along there are various vignettes. The duo meet three ex-Confederate soldiers. This leads to a shootout which got my hopes up for more excitement. Sadly that was the high point. They encounter more nasty fellows that want to rid the county from outsiders. The “good” and “bad” individuals might as well have those words stamped on their forehead. Granted some of the most captivating films ever made have clearly defined characters. It’s just that the saga is so lethargic. I guess I wasn’t expecting a drama to start at a snail’s pace and then frequently apply the brakes.

12-24-20

Minari

Posted in Drama with tags on January 7, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I love period pieces set in the 1980s.

That statement may sound like I’m referring to one of those comedic coming of age tales. Minari is a chronicle about the American dream. This is a loving recollection, externally dealing with the immigrant experience but intimately concerning a move the Yi family makes from California to Arkansas. Father Jacob (Steven Yeun) and mother Monica (Yeri Han), have arrived with their two kids. The parents are originally from South Korea. Precocious youngest child David (Alan S. Kim) and solemn older daughter Anne (Noel Kate Chao) were both born in California. Jacob is determined to make a living through farming. He dreams of transforming his five acres into a homestead where his family can grow Korean fruits and vegetables.

Sometimes life has other plans. His wife is not convinced. They argue much to the consternation of their kids. Their angry voices echo within the space of the cramped double-wide trailer they call home. Monica soon enlists the help of her mother, Soon-ja (Young Yuh-jung), who arrives from South Korea. This sweet but non-traditional grandmother introduces yet another component to the household. She doesn’t know how to cook, would rather play cards, and curses frequently. Her arrival will change their lives. The entire cast is great but her personality takes the narrative to another level. She also brings a memento from their native country — some Korean watercress called minari. She plants it alongside a creek nearby.

“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Yi family yearns for the unalienable rights outlined in the Declaration of Independence. This is a story that uplifts the assimilation into one’s adoptive country. There are so many little details that elevate this authentic depiction. To pay the bills, Jacob and Monica work separating baby chicks by gender. Chicken sexing is indeed an important part of mass poultry production. However, the success of the farm is their ultimate goal. The presentation is one of hope.

Minari is the fourth feature from American director Lee Isaac Chung. He too grew up on a small farm in rural Arkansas. Little David can be seen as a representation of Chung himself. Chung does what director Barry Levinson did with Avalon. Take inspiration from his own upbringing. He extracts warm memories of growing up and presents them with honesty and heart for all the world to appreciate. Sometimes the greatest cinematic moments are not spectacular action setpieces but the intimate interactions within a tight-knit clan.

This beautifully realized portrait is simply one of the best films of 2020. Sadly as of this writing, you’ll have to wait to see it: February 12 to be exact. However, it received a one-week virtual release in early December and so I recognized it as a 2020 movie when I compiled my Top 10 list of 2020. It occupies the #3 position. Consider this an invitation to watch the film when it finally becomes available. Minari is an exquisite comment on humanity.

12-28-20

Soul

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on December 29, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The meaning of life is a pretty grandiose idea for any movie to tackle and perhaps even more uncommon for a cartoon. However if any studio could rise to the challenge, it’s Pixar. Every release is always highly anticipated. This one is decidedly different because it’s being made available on Disney+ as many theaters are closed. For those who wish to keep track, this is Pixar’s 23rd feature. It takes on some major subjects. This isn’t new for the animation company. Both Coco and Inside Out dealt with similar themes but I’d say that Soul attempts something much grander.

The legendary Pete Docter has yet to fail as a director: Monsters, Inc, Up, and Inside Out are all classics. Here he directs for the fourth time and co-writes the script (with Mike Jones and Kemp Powers). I’m happy to say Docter comes through again — so successfully that I’m willing to bet Soul will be a Best Picture nominee when the Oscars are announced on March 15, 2021. Only three animated films have ever been nominated for the highest honor: Beauty and the Beast, Up, and Toy Story 3 are the others.

Soul is fascinating because it deals with a lot of abstract beliefs. The saga concerns jazz musician Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) who feels unfulfilled as a middle school music teacher. Then one day, a former student (Questlove) invites him to sit in on his jazz band led by respected saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Unfortunately, while leaving the successful audition he’s so preoccupied with the opportunity that he falls down a manhole and slips into a coma. His lifeless body lays in a hospital room but his soul is taking an escalator ride upward toward the Great Beyond. However, since he just got his big break, he resists by running away in the opposite direction. Joe plunges to another region called the Great Before. Understandably Joe is confused. “Uh hey, is this heaven?” he asks. That is the first and only time the word is ever uttered. “This isn’t the Great Beyond” a counselor (Alice Braga) informs him. “It’s the Great Before” — a place where other souls currently exist before being conceived as human beings . This is where personalities and interests are assigned before going to Earth. Oh, they’re calling it the “You Seminar” now. Rebranding.

There is a lot to unpack here. The screenplay has a definite worldview that it’s promoting. The ancient Greeks and Islam maintain a pre-existence, but it is generally denied in Christianity. For the most part, the filmmakers portray the afterlife without referencing the theology of any denomination. For example, the concept of God is not mentioned. Neither is religion. This is understandable as the teachings have been workshopped to please as many viewers as possible. Instead, we meet counselors all named “Jerry” that manifest as shapeshifting entities. They appear like cubist doodles that Picasso might have drawn. It is here that Joe is paired up to mentor a disagreeable unborn soul named 22 (Tina Fey) who has never left the Great Before. Adults who have well-established convictions about what life after death means will easily acknowledge these designs as a construct. This tale will most definitely inspire questions about heaven in the very young. Parents can use this as a springboard for further discussion with their children.

Soul eventually bestows an admirable moral with universal appeal. The ultimate reveal is a warm fuzzy thought that everyone can enjoy. That universality is guaranteed not to offend. Nevertheless, it keeps the chronicle from offering anything particularly deep or controversial. What the narrative lacks in profundity, it more than makes up for in visual grandeur. When Joe descends into the Great Before, my heart leaped at the sensational marriage of sight and sound. The percolating synthesizer score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is supremely affecting. Pixar has pushed their artistry once again. Their efforts elevate this production in ways that are hard to explain, but easy to appreciate: Joe’s fingers as they grace a keyboard (playing compositions by bandleader Jon Batiste), the judgmental facial expressions of Dorothea Williams regarding a new addition to her musical combo or simply the physical realm of New York City rendered in breathtaking detail. Thematically it aims higher and so the bar is raised to a new level. Soul is an ambitious statement and it delivers some but not all of the spiritual enlightenment it initiates. The story is still endlessly compelling throughout and I enjoyed the film as a spectacle. It’s one of the best of the year.

12-25-20

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Posted in Drama, Music with tags on December 22, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

We get a taste of Ma Rainey’s immeasurable talent at a blues concert on stage right at the beginning. Our story concludes with a staid rendition of a song in a recording studio that has a much different energy. In between, there are a lot of lengthy speeches that serve to explain why. This is an actor’s showcase based on August Wilson’s 1982 play. Wilson is best known for a series of ten theatrical works collectively called The Pittsburgh Cycle that deal with themes of race and the African American experience. Adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and directed by George C. Wolfe, this is the one piece of the cycle not set in Pittsburgh. It’s Chicago baby.

Viola Davis portrays the legendary “Mother of the Blues.” Ma Rainey was a trailblazing star in the 1920s. Readers may recall Viola Davis also appeared in Fences in 2016. That adaption of August Wilson’s play was shepherded by Denzel Washington who produced, directed and starred. He is a producer here and there are plans to bring all 10 of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle to the screen under his guidance. It’s 1927 and Ma Rainey travels to Chicago to record a selection of her popular tunes. The play centers on a fictionalized recording session of one particular song which also serves as the title of this movie. Incidentally, the “Black Bottom” was a dance craze of the era. The chronicle touches upon a multitude of subjects that include race, religion, and music — specifically the exploitation of black artists at the hands of white producers.

The performances are spectacular. Ma Rainey is a bold presence — strong-willed, set in her ways. She is keenly aware that these white men need her. She has something of value: her voice. She withholds that talent like a negotiable commodity as they are constantly at odds. With makeup, weight, gold teeth, and impressive singing, she cuts an imposing figure. Veteran soul singer Maxayn Lewis provides the vocals. Viola Davis embodies the woman. She won an Oscar for Fences and she most certainly will garner a nomination for her extraordinary work here. Whenever Ma Rainey is up on the screen, the drama is at its most fascinating. She commands the room.

In a most poignant elegy, Chadwick Boseman gives his final performance. As trumpeter Levee, he’s brought in as a hired musician for Ma Rainey’s latest record. The two fiercely independent types butt heads. He would rather perform the tunes he has written with his own musical combo. To make matters even more constrained, he also has eyes for Ma Rainey’s girl Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). Levee is the biggest part of the entire production and Boseman is getting the most accolades. He’s up on screen more than anyone, even Ma Rainey. Boseman is undeniably great and a likely Oscar nominee. However, actors Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, and Michael Potts portray the other members in her backing band. Their contributions are worthy of note as well. The cast is a captivating ensemble.

The overall presentation beautifully captures the craft of the stage but it’s not cinematic. The production is stagey, and it unfolds in an extremely claustrophobic setting. Fences suffered from theatricality too. Its dialogue ultimately won the Pulitzer Prize though and the movie transcended that obstacle. Most of the “action” here takes place in a recording studio — and by action, I mean talking. Perhaps that confined feeling was desired, but it’s not pleasant. There’s a lot of monologuing going on here. Characters recount various stories. Most underscore how racism has affected their lives. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom leans so heavily on amplified displays that it becomes a demonstration where actors act. We the audience are invited to marvel at their diction and technique. Those theatrics work perfectly well on Broadway, but it can be difficult to pull off in a film. Hamilton is a notable exception. Movies and plays are each elevated by distinct qualities. Great performances unite them both, but the rest doesn’t coalesce into a fully-realized whole. I was oddly unfulfilled by the end. Given that, I’d enjoy Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom a lot more on a theater stage than a TV screen.

12-18-20

Wolfwalkers

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on December 18, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In mid 17th century Ireland, the town of Kilkenny is at war with wolves. The citizens are currently clearing space in the woods for farming under the direction of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney), but the beasts are getting in the way. They attack the townsfolk’s sheep as well. Legend has it these aren’t mere animals. They are led by a much stronger breed called wolfwalkers — individuals who are part human, part wolf — that control these canines. A hunter named Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) has been hired to help aid in the canines’ extinction. He also has a young daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) who is eager to help out.

The Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon has a perfect record. They are now four for four in an extraordinary run of fantastic films beginning in 2009 with The Secret of Kells and continuing with Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner. Sure Disney and Pixar are far more prolific but with quantity comes mediocrity. Those studios achieve undeniable highs but the magical spirit of Cartoon Saloon is light years beyond releases like Chicken Little or Cars 3. This sumptuous, hand-drawn saga is an exquisite labor of love that touches the heart as it dazzles the eye. Every one of their movies has been nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. I do not doubt that this one will likewise get a nod. Perhaps 2021 could be their year. Wolfwalkers is that good.

This is a touching fable of friendship. Robyn encounters a wild bushy red-haired child. The little girl is named Mebh (Eva Whittaker). She is a human by day but can shape-shift into a wolf at night. As an apprentice hunter, Robyn has been instructed by her father to kill the last wolf pack. However, Mebh is a thoughtful soul who shares Robyn’s desire for freedom. Additionally, Mehb wants to be reunited with her mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy). There is a palpable connection — a sisterhood between the girls — that is most affecting. Robyn is conflicted.

If Wolfwalkers has a weakness it’s in the simplicity of the story. The developments have our protagonist encountering hostility for befriending a strange individual. Robyn and Mebh’s relationship is purely platonic, but it’s not embraced by her peers. That idea can be traced at least as far back as Romeo and Juliet. There are similarities to FernGully, Disney’s Pocahontas, Princess Mononoke, Avatar, and — wait for it — Dances with Wolves. There’s an overbearing tyrant who casts dispersions on the “others” as savages too. Yet I won’t hold familiarity against it. At this point, it would be like faulting a romantic comedy because it’s a “boy meets girl” tale.

Wolfwalkers is a beautiful achievement. I cannot emphasize how gorgeous these hand-drawn visuals look given our modern aesthetic of computer rendered images. It is so rare in fact that the mere presentation is stunning. The uniqueness is appreciated. The colors are bold and vibrant. There is an unfinished, rough quality to the artistry of the spectacle. Yes, traditional animation still exists. Anime from Japan and Warner Brothers’ direct to video superhero movies are notable exceptions. However with Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks’ domination of the market, CGI has been the norm.

Cartoon Saloon has been releasing works of art since 2009. Director Tomm Moore’s first two features were The Secret of Kells (2009), co-directed with Nora Twomey, and Song of the Sea (2014). He also did the segment “On Love” in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. Now he has returned with Wolfwalkers, a collaborative effort with art director Ross Stewart who makes his directorial debut here. What I value most about this production — and everything Cartoon Saloon does — is their dedication to creating an authentic age. No jargon or references to things in 2020. Disney and Pixar make enjoyable pictures, but they’re usually very much of our time. Wolfwalkers is a journey into another era allowing the viewer to bask in an ethereal mood. I rarely experience that in contemporary films. That’s something to be treasured.

12-02-20